The heart of an IFR power plant is a liquid-sodium-cooled reactor loaded with a new type of metal-alloy fuel. A new recycle technology called pyroprocessing is used to close the fuel cycle by separating the unused fuel from most of the radioactive waste. New fuel rods are fabricated by an inexpensive metal casting process.
Improved assurance of reactor safety was a major objective of the IFR program. Compared to today's reactors, safety of the IFR takes more advantage of the natural characteristics of the materials and the system design, and depends much less on proper mechanical and electric functioning of complex engineered systems or operator actions. This was demonstrated in EBR-II (Argonne's small prototype of the IFR) in 1986. In these tests, conditions were created that would be expected to lead to severe core melt-down in most types of reactors. EBR-II simply shut itself down without the operation of any active safey systems, without operator intervention, and without damage of any kind.
Improved management of high-level nuclear waste was another important goal of IFR technology development. The pyroprocess naturally keeps the most toxic long-lived radioactive materials (the transuranics) locked up in the recycled fuel material, where ultimately they are beneficially destroyed to produce electricity. The IFR process reduces the volume, heat generation, and longevity of nuclear wastes, making deeply buried high-level nuclear waste as benign as uranium ore within a few hundred years.
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